Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Eugene & Chris

Eugene Chadbourne, Ildiko's, Toronto, 1986

EUGENE CHADBOURNE IS STANDING IN THE DRESSING ROOM at Ildiko's, a former Hungarian wedding hall that was briefly a grimy punk rock club before it became a pool hall. He's holding "The Rake," an instrument of his own devising that combined an electric guitar body with the tines of a garden rake instead of strings. It was usually pulled out at the climax of his shows and played with a plastic toy chainsaw.

I don't need to tell you that it made an awful racket.

One side effect with writing about music - at least in my case - was that your appetite for new sounds becomes ravenous. At Nerve, I began writing about hardcore and metal and ended up following the less polite offshoots of jazz and art music - the improvised and noise fringe that was actually thriving in the mid-to-late '80s. If it howled, skronked, fed back, made a din or sounded like a pallet of pipes falling down a staircase I wanted to hear it.

Thus Eugene Chadbourne.

Chadbourne is an American rock and roll kid who got warped by Beefheart and Zappa, draft-dodged in Canada for a while, then moved back to the States where he put together a synthesis of country, bluegrass, blues and free jazz behind a persona that roughly approximated what Weird Al Yankovic might have been like if his original inspiration had been Albert Ayler and not polka.

I shot Chadbourne for a Nerve article written by my friend Tim. I don't remember much about the shoot except that I wanted him holding the Rake, and that someone - Tim, probably - might have been holding my flash off to the right side of the frame while I focused with my Mamiya C330. The bit of light blur visible on the Rake is probably there because I'd accidentally hit the aperture lever near the shutter on the Mamiya - a design flaw I was only learning about since this was just the fifth or sixth roll I shot on my new medium format camera.

Chris Cutler, Ildiko's, Toronto, 1987

A few months later I was back in the dressing room at Ildiko's to shoot drummer Chris Cutler, who was passing through town playing with Les 4 Guitaristes de l'Apocalypso Bar, a Montreal improv group. Cutler was English, and made his name playing with Henry Cow, one of the free jazz-inspired groups who inhabited the lunatic fringe of the British prog rock scene along with bands like Gong and Soft Machine.

He'd also written a book - File Under Popular - that was much talked about but fantastically hard to procure, then or now. (In the almost three decades since I took this picture, I've only seen a copy in a store once, when I was too broke to afford it.) Nonetheless, book unread and with only a cursory knowledge of his work gleaned from a few records borrowed from Tim, I convinced Nerve to let me do an interview.

In the intervening months since I'd bought the Mamiya, I'd invested in a light stand and umbrella for my flash, and was just learning how to use a single light in portraits. For this shot I obviously placed it high in the corner of the dressing room at Ildiko's, which explains the only slightly softened lines in the shadow under Cutler's chin. At least I'd learned not to knock the aperture lever by then.

It's not a bad portrait, really, and at the time what would have impressed me most was how sharp it was - likely the effect of running my flash at full power. As I've written before, 1987 was my learning year, much of it occupied with doing just one or two things over and over until I got them right.

I don't remember much about the show or the interview, except that a copy survives, and I managed to bluff my way through it by working up three or four decent questions and letting Cutler expound with erudition at length. Another memory is how Cutler reduced his whole drum kit to just two pieces of luggage, with his toms nesting inside each other in one with the hardware neatly folded inside, and another containing the cymbals and the rest of the hardware.

I was much impressed as I watched him haul the two cases up with either hand and lug them down the stairs at Ildiko's to the street. It would be my inspiration for my own portable studio, and years of trying to boil down my portable gear to the smallest, lightest packet of kit.

Cutler would shortly play drums for Pere Ubu, a band I much esteemed, before continuing with a long career in free and improvised music. Lately he's been hosting a series of podcasts about musical history and theory for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona. I've been making my way through them for the last couple of week and they're very good.


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